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Marines from the Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team stand alongside their Tactical Aid to Navigation device, which helps them guide incoming aircraft into the landing zone. Being able to rapidly set up and maintain airstrips and helipads in a deployed environment is one of the many capabilities that Detachment 18 brings to the 31st MEU.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Kenny Nunez Bigay

Clear for takeoff: 31st MEU Detachment 18

24 Jul 2019 | Lance Cpl. Kevan Dunlop III Marine Expeditionary Force

When it comes to ground to air capabilities, whether it is defense, communications or air traffic control, Detachment 18 with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced) handles every problem with trained proficiency. Currently attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit during Talisman Sabre 2019, Detachment 18 brings together a variety of military occupational specialties all with one common goal: supporting the MEU’s Aviation Combat Element.

Air defense is often the first thing to come to mind when someone mentions ground to air capabilities, says Lance Cpl. David C. Turner, a low altitude air defense gunner with the detachment. LAAD’s main job is to provide ground-based air defense for a friendly asset, according to Turner. Turner and other LAAD gunners use shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to defend against air threats.

“If enemy air assets give off any type of heat source, or even if they lack one, we can detect it, and we can shoot them down ,” said Turner.

In addition to ground based air defense, Detachment 18 also provides an Air Support Element (ASE) manned by Marines like Cpl. Austin W. Schumm, an air support operations operator. While an ASE does not provide the full range of capabilities seen in an operational Direct Air Support Center, it still provides procedural control of aircraft and serves as the link between ground-based fires and aviation operations.

“We’re like 9-1-1 dispatch,” said Schumm, “but we can also do our job in the field as an air support element.”

One of the 31st MEU’s most lethal and critical capabilities is the ability to conduct expeditionary advanced based operations. The EABO concept calls for employing mobile, low-signature, operationally relevant, and relatively easy to maintain and sustain expeditionary forces from a series of austere, temporary locations ashore or inshore within a contested or potentially contested maritime area in order to conduct sea denial or support sea control. Detachment 18’s ability to provide the infrastructure and support structures necessary plays a key role in the success of expeditionary operations.

“We can expand and expedite air defense and range capabilities,” said Sgt. Zachary Turpening, an air traffic controller with the detachment. According to Turpening, air traffic controllers can set up and maintain airstrips and helipads when forward deployed in austere environments.Whether for refueling, redeploying, or landing, Marines like Turpening are able to make the landing zone that MEU assets overhead need so they can continue taking the fight to the enemy from the skies.

According to 1st Lt. Sokhemalayar Chau, LAAD Detachment officer in charge, during Talisman Sabre 2019 Detachment 18 gets the opportunity to put some of its capabilities to the test as they serve as enablers on the helicopter-borne assault, controlling pickup zone operations, which entails controlling the flow of Marines via air assets into and out of a pickup zone. Additionally the detachment will have LAAD gunners on the ground to defend against simulated air threats.
“The 31st MEU’s air combat capabilities are increasingly important with the emerging threat of near peer adversaries,” said Sokhemalayar, “We [the detachment] are a vital link that connects the landing force to the air combat element, while providing protection and support for both.”